Though this itinerary includes Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur (the "Golden Triangle") and captures many of the essential Rajasthan sights, it does not include Jaisalmer, one of Rajasthan's most wonderful destinations, primarily because it's not very easy to get to. In a 2-week vacation that also takes in Delhi and Agra, it would be hard (but not impossible) to include Jaisalmer. Best to extend your stay in India by a few days if you want to cover this oldest "living" fortified city in Rajasthan. Located in the heart of the Thar Desert on India's far western border, Jaisalmer has breathtakingly beautiful, crumbling sandstone mansions, though its main attraction, Sonar Killa (Golden Fort), is reason enough to travel this far west, not least because it may not exist in a few years time. Though not as impressive as Jodhpur's Mehrangarh Fort, Jaisalmer has its unique charm as an inhabited medieval fort. So if you do come to Jaisalmer, plan to spend 2 nights, not least because it takes so long to get to here.
Days 1-3: Delhi
After your long flight and no doubt middle-of-the-night arrival, have a car waiting for you and check in at Delhi's finest hotel, Aman, at one of the city's superb midrange guesthouses, Amarya Haveli or Amarya Gardens, or at the best budget accommodations in town, the stylish Master Guest House, which will also arrange an airport transfer (book well in advance). When you feel you're ready to face the world, take in a few New Delhi sights, including India Gate, built to commemorate those who died in World War I. Walk from Rajpath to Rashtrapati Bhavan, where the president of India lives. After you cover the 12th-century Qutb Minar complex in South Delhi, grab a table at Park Balluchi before browsing the shops in Hauz Khas. After lunch, visit the garden tombs of Humayun and of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia (the saint Sheikh Nizamuddin Aulia), one of the holiest Muslim sites in India. Time allowing, stop off at Rajghat, the place where Gandhi was cremated in 1948. Of course if you're here to shop or want to browse, scrap these and head for Dilli Haat, a great place to check out the range of handicrafts you'll find on your travels through India. Pick one of Delhi's excellent restaurants for dinner (consider booking a table at the gorgeously designed Véda, or check if Olive Bar and Kitchen has reopened).
Prepare yourself for the chaos of the crowded streets of 17th-century Shahjahanabad, or Old Delhi -- just a few kilometers from Connaught Place, it feels a hundred years away, and the pungent smells from the ancient streets are a heady reminder that you are far from home. Still surrounded by crumbling city walls and three surviving gates, the vibrant, bustling Shahjahanabad, built over a period of 10 years by Emperor Shah Jahan, is very much a separate city -- predominantly a labyrinth of tiny lanes crowded with rickshaws and lined with havelis (Indian "mansions"), their balustrades broken and once-ornate facades defaced with rusted signs and sprouting satellite dishes. Start with imposing Lal Qila (Red Fort) and Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque. If the crowds haven't left you exhausted, visit Gauri Shankar Temple, Sisganj Gurudwara, and Sunehri and Fatehpuri masjids. The city's lanes and back lanes are exciting to wander through, especially Chandni Chowk, Khari Baoli (the spice market), and Kinari Bazaar -- but do hold on tightly to your belongings.
Days 4 & 5: Shekhawati
Make an early start and drive to the Shekhawati region, the open-air art gallery of Rajasthan. Today there are some 30 "painted towns" in the region, but the most essential to include in a first-time itinerary are Ramgarh, Nawalgarh, Fatehpur, and Mandawa. Mandawa is a quaint town with a number of beautifully painted buildings; it is also centrally located and has the best accommodations in the area. Overnight at Desert Resort as your first choice and then opt for the gracious Castle Mandawa.
Days 6 & 7: Jaipur & Ranthambhore
Drive to the "Pink City" of Jaipur. If possible, book into the wonderful Rajvil?s (more resort than hotel), though Jaipur is one city that has a host of pleasant heritage options to suit every budget. If you prefer the authenticity of a real heritage hotel, book a room in the opulent and well-located Rambagh Palace or the more low-key Samode Haveli inside the Old City. Explore the City Palace, including a visit to Hawa Mahal and Jantar Mantar, and then focus on sites farther afield: Amber Fort, first royal residence of the Maharajas of Kachchwaha, lies 11km (6 3/4 miles) north, while popular Samode Palace is an hour's drive away. Jaipur, famous for gems and jewelry, enamel and brassware, blue pottery, embroidered leather footwear, rugs, tie-and-dye cotton fabrics, hand-blocked prints, fine Kota doria saris, and ready-made linens and home furnishings, is a shopper's paradise. You could spend days bargain-hunting through the region's wonderful crafts, so be prepared to extend your stay by at least a day. If this is not possible, set off on the evening of Day 7 to Ranthambhore National Park, and overnight at Aman-i-Khás, for the finest "tenting" experience in India.
Day 8: Ranthambhore
Take an early morning or afternoon game drive into the park. Set aside a few hours to visit Ranthambhore Fort, whose high, jagged escarpment has towered over the park's forests for nearly a thousand years. Go tiger tracking; the highlight of a trip here is spotting a tiger. Even if you don't see a tiger (and do be prepared for this eventuality), the physical beauty of the park is worth experiencing. Other species to watch for include caracal (a wildcat), crocodile, nilgai (large antelope resembling cattle), chital (spotted deer), black buck (delicate buck with spiraling horns), chinkara (a dainty gazelle), and sambar. The park also holds leopards, wild boars, sloth bears, and rich birdlife. At night, unwind around a campfire and swap stories with other travelers, or discuss the fate of the highly endangered tiger.
Day 9: Shahpura
Drive to the expansive wooded estate of family-run Shahpura Bagh, where you've got quaint, off-the-beaten-track Shahpura -- one of the more unspoiled villages in Rajasthan -- right on your doorstep. When you're not relaxing by the pool, explore Shahpura's narrow streets, with photo opportunities everywhere: old men beating copper pots into perfect shape; tailors working with beautiful fabrics on ancient Singers and ironing with coal-heated irons; huge mounds of orange, red, and yellow spices offset by fresh, colorful local vegetables; rickshaws carting women adorned in color-saturated saris; ancient step wells and temples blaring live music.
Days 10 & 11: Udaipur
Visit Udaipur's lovely bazaars and towering City Palace and Museum. Take a boat ride on Lake Pichola and overnight at either Lake Palace or one of the other accommodations with a lake view. Or spend the night at elegant Devi Garh just 26km (16 miles) from Udaipur. If the lake is dry, tarry no longer than a day, moving on the next day to one of the excursions outside Udaipur. Begin with the temples at Nathdwara, Nagda, and Eklingji; then move on to the awesome Jain temples at Ranakpur, Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, and magnificent Kumbhalgarh Fort. Alternatively, consider another long, full-day trip to Chittaurgarh, site of the most legendary Mewar battles. Overnight on Day 11 at Rawla Narlai or Deogarh Mahal, from where you can head northwest for Jodhpur.
Day 12: Jodhpur & Delhi
Make an early start to drive to "the Blue City" of Jodhpur and explore fabulous Mehrangarh Fort and Museum. For many, this looming, 15th-century edifice to Rajput valor is still Rajasthan's most impressive fort, with walls that soar like sheer cliffs 122m (400 ft.) high -- literally dwarfing the city at its base -- and a proud history of never having fallen to its many invaders. Don't miss Umaid Bhawan Palace, once the largest private residence in the world -- a vivid reminder of the decadence the Rajput rulers enjoyed during the British Raj (if you have an extra day, consider staying at the Palace, now a superb luxury hotel). Catch a flight to Delhi, where you can relax after a long day.
Days 13 & 14: Agra
From Delhi, drive to Agra to visit the jewel of India, the Taj Mahal, stopping en route at Fatehpur Sikri. Visit Itmad-ud-Daulah's tomb and Agra Fort. If you have the time, see beautiful Jama Masjid, built in 1648 by Jahanara Begum, Shah Jahan's favorite daughter. Overnight at the Oberoi's Amarvilas, a worthwhile splurge for your last night in India. Ideally, you can visit the Taj at dawn on Day 14 and spend as much time as you like there before you head back to Delhi for your flight out. If you get into Delhi before nightfall, you'll still have time to do last-minute shopping, as most shops are open till at least 7pm.